Gang Rape of Jewish Slave-women in Renaissance Italy Exposed by Historians

In 1610, a doctor and founding father of the Italian city of Livorno organized the mass rape of enslaved Jewish women from Morocco in a plot to extort money from local Jews

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Monument of the Four Moors in Livorno
Monument of the Four Moors in LivornoCredit: Giovanni Dall'Orto
Ariel David
Ariel David

The history of slavery is filled with accounts of horror, injustice and misery meted out by humans upon their fellow humans. One forgotten piece of this history has now emerged from 400-year-old documents rediscovered in the dusty archives of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, now a region of Italy.

In 1610, a group of enslaved Jewish women from Morocco was gang-raped in the slave prison of the bustling Renaissance port city of Livorno, says Tamar Herzig, a professor of early modern history at Tel Aviv University. The perpetrators were local Christian convicts sentenced to forced labor and enslaved Muslims who were held in the same facility, Herzig reports in a study published Tuesday in American Historical Review.

Even more shockingly, the historian discovered that the crime was planned and organized by the doctor who was in charge of the slaves’ safety, a man who was also the first mayor of Livorno and is still celebrated today as one of the city’s founding fathers.

And why did he do it? For money. In the subsequent outcry and investigation, the good doctor successfully defended himself by explaining that the rape was intended as a “lesson” for the local Jewish community, who had been too slow in paying the high ransom demanded for the freedom of the captured Jews.

Herzig’s discovery sheds light on the phenomenon of slavery in Christian and Muslim countries around the Mediterranean during the Renaissance and the early modern era, and especially on the oft forgotten Jewish and female victims of this brutal practice.

It also reminds us that the economic, artistic and scientific revival of the Renaissance – which was very much centered on Tuscany and its capital, Florence – was also fueled in part by money and labor gleaned from capturing and trading in human beings.

The scene of the crime: Livorno’s former slaves’ prison in a photo from the 1900s, when it was being used as a hospitalCredit: Sailko

Life expectancy: Five years

During centuries of conflict between Christian and Muslim powers across Europe and the Mediterranean, corsairs from both sides would raid shipping and towns of the opposing side, enslaving any captured men, women and children, Herzig explains.

Scholars still debate how many people were caught up in the Mediterranean slave trade, which lasted roughly from 1500 to 1800. Estimates vary from a lower range of 3 million-5 million, to a ceiling of 6 million-7 million people, with a three-to-one ratio of Christian to Muslim slaves.

Mediterranean slavery differed radically from the transatlantic trade of enslaved Africans to the Americas, Herzig notes. Firstly, slaves in the Mediterranean did not go through the horrors of the Middle Passage, the long and often fatal crossing of the Atlantic that Africans were subjected to in their slavers’ ships. Christians and Muslims were also not as isolated from their countries of origin. Some, especially prominent captives, could be returned in prisoner exchanges or ransomed by relatives or a rich patron.

Finally, this kind of enslavement was usually predicated on religious, rather than racial, differences, meaning that slaves who converted to their captors’ religion could be freed, although owners were under no obligation to do so. Additionally, at least in central and northern Italy, the children born to slave women were baptized at birth, raised as free Catholics, and generally integrated into society, albeit sometimes as wards of the state.

“There was no multigenerational slavery of the kind we see in the Americas, which also means there were no ethno-religious communities that kept some kind of collective memory,” Herzig says. “That’s one of the reasons we know relatively little about these slaves.”

Despite the differences with the transatlantic trade and the brutalities of plantation labor in the Americas, Mediterranean slavery was no walk in the park. Fit men who were not ransomed or exchanged were used as forced laborers and rowers in the galleys that the two sides used in naval conflicts. Their life expectancy was usually between five and 10 years, Herzig says. Women and children were sold as domestic servants – an existence rife with abuse and sexual exploitation.

Remains of Livorno's slaves’ prison, which was ultimately demolished in the 1930sCredit: Etienne (Li)

Records are spotty, and there are no broad estimates of how many Jews were enslaved, but there were certainly many thousands who fell in the hands of corsairs from either side, Herzig says. Jews who lived in Muslim lands were liberally enslaved by Christian forces, while those from Christendom were free game for the Barbary pirates of North Africa. Once taken, Jews were in a particularly vulnerable position. While Muslim and Christian powers could easily retaliate on their own enemy prisoners for any mistreatment of their people, Jews were at a higher risk of being abused or raped – since they had no political or military clout of their own, Herzig notes. Also, since most Christian and Muslim rulers were not particularly protective of their Jews, they were often excluded from prisoner exchange deals and their only chance at freedom was to be ransomed by relatives at home or by local the Jewish community.

This brings us to the events that occurred in Livorno (also called Leghorn in English).

A sadistic doctor

The story begins in the summer of 1610, when a ship of the Knights of St. Stephen brought to Livorno a group of 14 Jews they had captured between Tetouan, in Morocco, and Tunis. These knights were a religious military order founded by the powerful Medici family, which ruled over what was then the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. The knights were ostensibly charged with protecting shipping from the threat of North African pirates, but also engaged in their privateering against defenseless Muslim vessels.

Once they were placed in Livorno’s slave pen, the Moroccan Jews were questioned by the prison doctor, one Bernardetto Buonromei, whose job it was to decide the amount of money for which they could be ransomed or sold. Buonromei was considered an upstanding citizen, who had served for years as a doctor on the Tuscan galleys and had been Livorno’s first mayor when the recently constructed port town was recognized as a city by the grand duke in 1606.

Bust and monumental tomb of Bernardetto Buonromei in Livorno’s cathedralCredit: Sailko

Buonromei soon learned that the Jews of Tetouan were fleeing famine and a civil war that were ravaging Morocco at the time. They were destitute refugees with no assets or relatives who could pay their ransom.

Buonromei, who stood to receive a percentage of the ransom and had gotten extremely rich off the slave trade, did not take the news well, according to a subsequent probe ordered by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de’ Medici.

“Doctor Bernardetto kicked the men and the women in the chest with his feet,” says the report of the investigation, which was published by Herzig. “He ordered the head shaving of the Jews and the smearing of their heads and their faces with salted pork meat.”

Next, Buonromei (sometimes spelled Borromei), contacted the leaders of the local Jewish community to see if they were interested in ransoming their coreligionists. This was not unusual, both in Livorno and elsewhere. Just in the Tuscan port, the inflow of Jewish captives had been increasing over the previous years: from around 20 in the last decades of the 16th century to more than 70 between 1607 and 1611, Herzig found.

The local Jews were a fairly prosperous community of traders and bankers who had moved to Livorno, lured by the promise of religious freedom granted by the Medicis, who were eager to attract business to their new port city. Because of the increasing number of captives, in 1606 the community had introduced a self-tax to create the Hevrat Pidyon Shevuyim (Hebrew for Society for the Redemption of Prisoners) to help Jewish slaves for whom no ransom was forthcoming.

When the prison’s doctor came knocking, however, the Jews apparently didn’t pay up quickly enough. Possibly the fund had been depleted by earlier redemptions, or perhaps the community’s leaders were reluctant to pay the high ransom that Buonromei demanded, lest this make Jews an even more desirable target for Christian pirates, Herzig speculates.

Rape of the Sabine Women 1583 by GiambolognaCredit: Mary Harrsch

In any case, Buonromei’s response was swift and ruthless. While females of all confessions were habitually kept in separate quarters in the slave prison, he ordered that the Jewish women be placed in the dormitories of the men, so that they would be raped by the Christian and Muslim rowers stationed there. It is possible that the Muslim captives were particularly eager to participate in the gang rape as revenge for the involvement of Jews, in Livorno and the Mediterranean in general, in trading in Muslim slaves. Of course, Herzig adds, Jews were pushed into this trade because it was one of the few professions they were allowed to pursue, along with moneylending.

‘One lost her mind’

Buonromei’s actions were considered unacceptable even in a society that deemed slavery legal. Enslaved females were generally protected from rape, at least until they were ransomed or sold to a private individual, if anything because, in the heavily patriarchal societies of the time, sexual assault diminished a woman’s value in the eyes of a potential buyer or her own family.

“If you are waiting for a ransom, you want to get the highest possible amount of money and not upset the family or the community. So even if a rape happened it would not have been publicized,” Herzig tells Haaretz. “This is what is unique about this case: everybody in the city knew about it, because it was done to purposely shame the Jews.”

Indeed, the Jews of Livorno took the rape as a personal affront and wrote repeatedly to Cosimo II de’ Medici, asking him to remove and punish Buonromei. It was the discovery of these and other documents in the archives of Livorno and Florence that first put the Israeli historian on the case.

In their letters, the Jews tell the grand duke that the 14 captives from Tetouan were being subjected to “tortures and torments to which slaves are not subject in any part of the world and especially not in the state of His Most Serene Highness.”

Being more concerned with their own “humiliation” than with the fate of the actual victims, the Jews of Livorno don’t offer us much detail about the slaves from Tetouan. We don’t know how many of the 14 were women, or their names, or how long they were kept at the mercy of the enslaved rowers.

One of the petitions does mention that, as a result of the assault, one woman “lost her mind, and overcome by desperation threw her daughter from the window, and the girl’s life is in danger, and she wanted to do the same to the baby who is nursing at her breast had she not been impeded.” The woman had her hands and feet bound and was committed to a hospital.

For his part, Cosimo ordered the abovementioned investigation by a local governor, which ascertained the truth of the events. In letters to the grand duke, Buonromei himself didn’t deny the accusations, but defended his conduct, saying that he was accused simply because he was considered “too severe in attaining the interest of Your Most Serene Highness.”

Buonromei presented the rape as something that in the future would ensure the payment of ransom by Livorno’s affluent Jews, Herzig says. The grand duke clearly agreed with this economic rationale, as he did not punish Buonromei – or the slaves who perpetrated the rape. Cosimo continued to support the doctor, even paying for the bust statue that still adorns his burial chapel in Livorno’s cathedral.

Buonromei, who died around 1616, was later also honored by having a city street named after him. He continues to be celebrated today, with actors playing him in pageants that commemorate Livorno’s founding, Herzig says.

The dark side of the Renaissance

Buonromei’s legacy is not the only reminder of Livorno’s and Tuscany’s past entanglement with slavery. Perhaps the best known memento is the city’s most famous landmark, sculptor Pietro Tacca’s Monument of the Four Moors.

Monument of the Four Moors in LivornoCredit: Piergiuliano Chesi, Wikimedia Commons

Commissioned by Cosimo, it shows his father and predecessor, Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinand I de’ Medici, towering over four chained captured enemy pirates of African and Middle Eastern descent. (The statue has recently become a focal point for local protests in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.)

But while the acts of reciprocal enslavement by Christian and Muslim powers have been relatively well explored by scholars, the discovery of Buonromei’s actions sheds some light on the unique experience of Jewish captives, and in particular of women, whose stories are rarely preserved in the historical record, Herzig notes. It also paints a darker picture of Renaissance Tuscany and its Medici rulers, more often seen as enlightened sovereigns and patrons of the arts. Yet when it came to protecting their business interests, they quickly sided with someone who clearly viewed Jews as chattel.

Slavery was a “constant presence” in the lives of Jewish communities in the Mediterranean in that period, says Anna Foa, a retired professor of modern history at La Sapienza University in Rome and an expert on the history of Italian Jews. In fact, there are accounts of Jews landing at the port of Genoa, in northern Italy, after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and selling some of their children into slavery to save the rest of the family from starvation, Foa notes.

Despite this long history, the state-sanctioned mass rape that Herzig uncovered is an “unusual” occurrence, not because of any moral qualms people may have felt at the time, but because it reduced the value of the female captives, says Foa, who did not take part in Herzig’s study.

“Because it is so anomalous, this extraordinary discovery tells us a lot about the story of Jews in Italy, about the power dynamics in their relationships with the various Italian states and about slavery in the Mediterranean in general,” she tells Haaretz.

As for the victims of Buonromei’s plot, their fate remains unknown to us. The women from Tetouan may have been part of a group of more than 30 Jewish slaves who were ransomed in Livorno in 1611. If they were indeed freed, they would likely still have faced scorn and possibly repudiation by their husbands and families over the rape, Herzig says.

If they were not redeemed, the women’s fate would have been likely worse. They would have been sold into a life of servitude, and any children resulting from the rape (or any subsequent assault) would have been baptized and separated from them if the mothers did not convert as well.

“Writing about the rape of female slaves, who could not leave behind testimonies of their abuse, is a tremendous responsibility,” Herzig concludes in her study. “Reconstructing the human suffering that Buonromei unleashed, and then strove to consign to oblivion, aims at providing a counter-narrative to the one he wished to create by silencing his victims.”

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